It used to be that if you needed a 50 terawatt plasma generator to power your gravimetric field oscillator, you either had to live sometime in the distant future, or figure out how to invent one yourself. But guess what? Things are easier now. Just click and download and it’s yours for $19.
Okay. Fine. It’s an animation model.
It used to be that if you needed an animation of a 50 terawatt plasma generator, or something of similar provenance, you had to have some skills with an airbrush or painter's palette, or the ability to fork out the requisite resources to hire someone who did.
Did I mention it’s still only $19?
The thing I'm referring to comes from a website called Turbo Squid, but there are dozens of similar sites out there in cyberland. You can get friendly robots, corinthian columns, and ring-tailed lemurs. In fact, if you’ve dreamed it up, there’s probably already a digital model of it waiting for you in some online storefront.
These virtual things used to cost thousands of dollars and require major technical chops to wrangle. But then, didn’t everything? Cell phones used to be the stuff of one-percenters, and electric refrigerators made millions of middle class people giddy with the promise that modernity would change everything for the better and keep the milk cold.
If you’re a media producer, the animation building blocks available for purchase sometimes deliver on that promise. Same goes for clips of music, sound effects, video footage of exotic locations: they all promise to make the act of making more complex stuff easier.
They promise, but they don’t always make it so.
It’s easy to visit these digital storefronts to get exotica you think you need. It’s easy and it’s cheap and a wealth of high quality resources are suddenly yours to use for a pittance of what bespoke media used to cost. Nonetheless there be dragons here, and I’m not talking about the ones with adjustable skeletal rigs.
Production time has fallen fast, largely because expectations have increased. Since everything is available right now, everything should be easy for a producer to corral, right now. Unfortunately the benefits of reflective thought sometimes don’t accrue simple because ease of access curtails those great inspirations that come from having to solve problems, or enough time to ruminate on sublime solutions.
But there’s a bigger problem. With near photorealistic images, highly sophisticated symphonic music tracks (or night club grooves), gritty, slick, or explosive sound effects, and a million other buy-by-the-inch elements available, projects of all sorts all take major steps forward in terms of polish, but begin to converge on shared aesthetics. As CGI become more photorealistic, for example, viewers begin to expect completely photorealistic images because they’re oh so close! in terms of verisimilitude. And that’s fine! It’s cool in reasonable doses, and it’s got it’s place. (Hey, we think we’re pretty ^#*%@# good at it too, by the way!)
But I worry about the sustainability of the creators feeding the digital warehouses with pre-fab rubber trees and jumbo jets. When a hundred bucks gets a producer a surprisingly sophisticated musical track to lay under a vital scene, what’s the incentive for musicians to spend their lives perfecting the challenging art of creating sublime music? When animatable CG models cost a hundred bucks to convey something otherwise unattainable in live action, overall budgets fall, affecting the overall environment for content creation. Production excellence eats itself.
There’s a strange metaphysical conundrum that Turbo Squid, Pond 5, Killer Tracks and dozens of other sites present. It’s not philosophical for content creators like us because we know the score. (Not philosophical. Just challenging.) We go to battle every day, sending out scouts out to probe the terrain for paths through the ever changing wilderness of how to deliver the goods for our clients no matter how rough the road. The conundrum is for consumers, our clients and audiences. Every time a commission asks for flying elephants but insists on paying for sleeping mice, the future shudders and shivers. It’s too easy to say that as long as someone is willing to take the job, the price is right. Market forces may be set perfect prices, but that only lasts as long as providers can provide loss-leading products. At some point requests for inexpensive flying elephants can only go so low.
So does that mean that Turbo Squid and it’s ilk are destined to be the clearinghouse for all things that cannot be captured in a camera, the Black Model T Fords of our time? Perhaps. But the deeper implications of creative work being parceled out into a million fractal fragments is the risk that we all get precisely what we ask for, without every getting something that we can’t know about before we ask. When everything unreal can be purchased on demand, one wonders about the future potential and sustainability of creative classes to dream up ideas that transport us collectively to places we can’t even imagine.